Being Frank: Salmon management must build on the lessons of the past 50 years

Being Frank is a column by Chairman Ed Johnstone of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. As a statement from the NWIFC chairman, the column represents the natural resources management concerns of the treaty tribes in western Washington.

One year from now, in February 2024, we will mark the 50th anniversary of federal Judge George Boldt’s ruling in United States vs. Washington, which affirmed tribes’ treaty-reserved rights to harvest salmon outside of our reservations.

The court case was brought about by the Fish Wars of the 1960s and ’70s, when state authorities arrested tribal fishermen violently—often with tear gas—for exercising the fishing rights we reserved in the Stevens treaties of the 1850s. The state confiscated our boats, our nets and our fish. Racism against Native Americans seemed to be at an all-time high.

Now, despite the co-management relationship we have developed since then to manage salmon harvest with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), some elected state leaders seem determined to set tribal fishermen up to endure that kind of racism again.

Gov. Jay Inslee recently asked state legislators to pass a bill banning commercial gillnets on the Columbia River. He knew this would put a target on our backs because he offered to include $500,000 for fish and wildlife enforcement to prevent the expected increase in harassment of tribal gillnetters.

Member tribes of NWIFC, Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission and Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians formally opposed this legislation, but Inslee’s senior policy adviser implied at a senate committee meeting that, because the governor’s office held several meetings with tribes, we had been consulted. These meetings were not in the spirit of government-to-government consultation. True consultation requires tribes’ free, prior and informed consent to policies affecting our treaty-protected resources. The governor’s office disregarded our concerns.

Fortunately, this bill did not make it out of committee, but we shouldn’t even be having these conversations. While the proposed legislation would not have applied to tribal fisheries, this discourse endorses the misconception that the gear used in tribal fisheries is somehow harmful to salmon recovery.

Tribes use gillnets because they are selective by time, place and mesh size. Nets are the most efficient way for us to harvest salmon while causing the least amount of impact on other species.

Tribes already have reduced their chinook salmon harvest by 60-95% since the 1980s, at great cost to our way of life. If recovering salmon were as easy as taking tribal nets out of the water, we would have done it by now. The Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians hasn’t held a commercial chinook harvest in decades, and yet low numbers of Stillaguamish River chinook continue to constrain state and federal harvest allocations each year.

If conservation were truly their goal, elected leaders would do the hard work of protecting and restoring salmon habitat. Preventing landowners from degrading and destroying habitat. Ensuring our streams and rivers are protected from the high temperatures and low flows exacerbated by climate change. Amending legislation to allow for the management of marine mammal predation of salmon. Increasing funding for hatchery production for harvest and to protect endangered runs that lack sufficient habitat to sustain their populations. These are the areas we need to focus on.

Tribal governments and WDFW have worked too hard to reach our current level of co-management to be undermined by calls to ban gillnets. For the first decade after the Boldt decision, the state continued to work against us. During a meeting with tribal leaders in the 1980s, Bill Wilkerson, then director of the state Department of Fisheries, turned his attention to the technical staff that were resistant to work with the tribes. “I don’t want to hear that anymore,” he told them. “If you’re going to keep going down that pathway, just walk right out the door.”

Tribal and state co-managers have learned a lot of lessons since then. We all need to work together—not against each other. It’s what we have to do if we hope to have salmon to harvest for another 50 years.

Above: Upper Skagit Indian tribal fishers spray-painted the side of their boat in an effort to camouflage it in the water as protection against ongoing harassment about the gear they use in treaty-protected fisheries.